Health officials from North and South America are calling for a hemispheric approach against avian flu.

Representatives from the Pan American Health Organization, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture and the Organization of American States met in Washington Friday to discuss ways to head off a possible epidemic of bird flu.

While the OAS has traditionally focused on security, trade and human rights issues, Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin said the threat of avian flu is high on the group's agenda.

"Democracy itself is fine.  Economic development is fine, but if the social conditions are not there, especially in terms of health, then nothing will be possible," he said.  "So we see a long-term threat here, which needs to be addressed proactively, which needs to be addressed collectively, which needs to be addressed both within the inter-American system, as well as between member states."

Chelston Brathwaite is Director General of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture.  He says economic diversity in the region has created what he called pockets of weakness, where some nations simply do not have the capacity to detect and contain the spread of a disease like avian flu."

"We face the real possibility that, in those countries that do not have the capacity, we can generate, or we can have the focus of the activity of a very serious disease in those countries that can easily be spread to others," he noted.

To combat those shortfalls, Pan American Health officials have been developing plans in various countries to deal with a conventional influenza pandemic.  Some 25 centers throughout the region already monitor outbreaks of influenza.  With the world sending much of its financial and technical aid to other geographic areas, the officials say it is important for the region to pool its resources.

Regional officials all agreed that communication is a key weapon against a possible bird flu outbreak.  They said sharing information will prevent widespread panic among the people and will prevent governments from overreacting.

More than 100 people worldwide have died from the lethal strain of bird flu since 2003, mainly in Asia.  Experts fear the virus could mutate and become contagious among humans, triggering a pandemic that could kill millions.